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Pressure mounts on BP as Obama eyes “next steps”

Political pressure mounted for BP to show progress plugging a massive oil leak while residents of coastal Florida, Mississippi and Alabama learned the growing pool of oil from the leak would not strike their beaches until late on Saturday.

The drifting sea of oil could still spell disaster for coastlines all around the Gulf of Mexico while crippling attempts in Washington to overhaul US energy policy.

President Barack Obama, whom the White House has described as “deeply frustrated” that the massive mile-deep oil leak has not been plugged, is set to meet with top advisers on Friday to discuss “next steps” as the giant oil slick creeps west across the Louisiana coast.

Capt. Steve Poulin, sector commander for the US Coast Guard in Mobile, Alabama, said in a briefing on Thursday afternoon the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast did not see the oil slick making landfall in Alabama, at least until Saturday evening.

“You will see no imminent threat of oil impacting Mississippi, Alabama or Florida with these projections,” Poulin added.

BP Plc, the British energy giant that has tried for weeks to staunch the unchecked flow of oil from a ruptured well, said on Thursday it would deploy a small containment dome, known as a “top hat,” to trap the oil at the site of the leak in the coming days.

If such short-term efforts fail, it could take 90 days for the company to drill a relief well to cap the ruptured one.

Obama and his administration have stressed repeatedly that BP must pay for the spill's cleanup and other economic ramifications in the region, and the president is likely to repeat that -- while putting pressure on the company to achieve results -- in a public statement after his meeting.

“The president will meet with members of his cabinet and other senior administration officials to determine next steps in the ongoing effort to stop the BP oil spill, contain its spread and help affected communities,” the White House said in a statement. Obama, a Democrat, is scheduled to speak to reporters about the issue at 11:50 a.m. Washington time.

Oil has been gushing from the well for three weeks at the rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) per day, threatening to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the biggest US oil spill, and possibly the worst environmental disaster in US history.

BP, whose shares have tumbled and wiped out $30 billion of market value since the rig fire on April 20, said the oil spill had cost it $450 million so far. BP stock closed up 1.1% in London on Thursday after weeks of steep declines.

While the spill threatened coastlines, local businesses and animal habitats, it also created complications for Obama's energy policy.

Two lawmakers introduced legislation this week in the US Senate to fight climate change and expand production of renewable fuels, but the spill has dampened the public appetite for an expansion of offshore drilling -- a component originally designed to encourage Republican support.

Outside of Washington communities that could be affected by the spill wondered when oil would show up on their shores.

Federal authorities said more than 520 vessels were responding to assist in containment and cleanup efforts in addition to dozens of aircraft and remotely operated vehicles.

A US Senate committee approved $68 million to speed assistance to people affected by the massive oil spill, part of a request by the Obama administration to address the crisis. (Reuters)